Sunday, June 04, 2017

Misplaced Advice: For Her Own Good (Ehrenreich & English)

     Barbara Ehrenreich & Deirdre English. For Her Own Good (1978 & 2005) The subtitle reads Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women. It looks like the authors have read just about every piece of advice ever written. The notes to the chapters are extensive: there is a reference for every quotation and assertion. The book is a model of how to tell a history of ideas. The Woman Question arose when the roles of men and women in the family and society were eroded by the market economy instigated by the industrial revolution destroyed the economic function of the family.
     When a man’s role became that of the wage earner whose income would be used to buy what hitherto had been made by the family, his wife no longer had an economic function. There resulted more or less frantic and in hindsight ridiculous attempts to find a role for Woman outside the market economy, which meant in practice confining her to the home and redefining her role within it in terms of human relationships instead of economic value. The justifications danced around the idea that women were too weak, too emotional, too irrational etc to be trusted with work and power outside the home.
     The authors show how initially there was a concerted effort to eliminate women’s economic value. It was easy enough to transfer manufacture from the home to the factory. It was much harder to transfer women’s value as healers, and effort that began well before the industrial revolution, because womens’ power to heal threatened the hegemony of the celibate male church hierarchy. The story of how it was done is painful to read.
     Once women were transformed into consumers rather than producers, the problem became that of keeping them happy and satisfied. It was the upper and upper middle classes that first had to deal with the problem of the idle wife whose lack of economic and productive value naturally caused more or less painful psychosomatic suffering. The puzzle was how to make a woman feel useful when she obviously wasn’t, and worse, knew that she wasn’t. She became the Angel in the Home, the quasi-mother that comforted her husband when he returned from the cruel world of economic battle. She became the Hand the Rocked the Cradle. And so on.
     It all makes for an odd mix of depressing and entertaining reading, the effect of amazingly obtuse ideas and sentiments expressed by men (and a few women) who really should have known better. The authors give us large swatches of quotations and paraphrases from the experts’ advice books and articles. The book is worth reading for these alone.
     In an afterword written in 2004, Ehrenreich and English point to the economic emancipation of women, which has of course changed the problem once again. Now that women are no longer economically longer dependent on men, there is no reason to fabricate some essential role for her in marriage and the family. This of course brings with it a whole new range of issues: For if marriage and family are no longer one of the main, if not the main, purposes of growing up, what is the role of men and women? We shall see, and no doubt a generation or two from now, somebody will write a book about how the Woman Question morphed in the Life Question. I hope they do as good a job as Ehrenreich and English.
     Highly recommended. ****

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